I traveled to Italy to audit a course on Medieval Art and Spiritual Disciplines, expecting grand thoughts and monumental soul movement, but instead clinging to the quiet, ordinary moments. I fell in love with laundry drying on clotheslines.
Let me back up a little bit. Before I left for my adventure to Italy, I almost published a blog post titled, “On losing your voice.” But I couldn’t even find the words for the voiceless post. Somehow, my life swallowed me from every direction. I asked for help for the same problems over and over again. I depleted the ink in my pens to keep writing and circling and underlining, “HELP. HELP. HELP.” I felt more anxious than excited to even go on the trip, wondering how I would do it in this state of forgetting how to build stories and how to use words to paint a beautiful life.
But I did it. I showed up. The pace of the trip made it impossible to sleep, yet possible to just keep my swollen ankles moving up every hill, every step. I can barely read my handwriting in my journal in the beginning days of the trip when I scribbled what we did each day that sometimes included walking 20,000 steps up 45 flights of stairs in 95 degree weather.
Early on in the trip, while we stayed in a monastery in Venice, we took a water taxi to Murano, a small island famous for glass blowing. I had already fallen in love with Venice, the city of love, where you squeeze through an alleyway down cobblestone streets, buildings dressed in coordinated flower boxes, rounding the corner to an iron bridge that overlooks a canal filled with blue and white stripped shirt men paddling gondolas. An old woman swaying to her accordion, a man knelt on the cobblestone painting in bright colors on tiny canvases leaning against the stone building. Even the beggars looked beautiful, women with their thin scarves covering their heads, knelt on the street on both knees with their faces kissing the ground, one hand holding onto their broken cup begging for help.
But then we went to Murano on a Monday after all the glass blowing shops closed. As we walked around the town, I caught glimpses of ordinary life in this majestic place, dreaming of the humans who must have something to do with the clean laundry blowing in the wind. It struck me that these moments of hanging laundry, walking little kids to school, singing Happy Birthday in Italian to a table full of 11-year-old girls, these moments pile together into these people’s daily ordinary. Extraordinary to me, yet ordinary to them.
Throughout the trip, I saw more duomos than I can count, cathedral churches each with their own unique stories and designs. Venice, Padua, Milan, Ravenna, Florence, Orvieto, Assisi, Siena. On Pentecost Sunday, we attended mass at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. I had no idea what the priest sang in Italian, but my soul nudged towards Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, which I learned means Holy, Holy, Holy. My neck hurt from looking upwards for too long, stuck gazing at the beautiful ceilings adorned with gold, skimming heaven’s puffy lining. How did human hands and strength, without the technology we depend on today, even fathom the idea of constructing something so grand?
In looking up in awe of these holy spaces that honor and preserve history for a respected God who waits as a king on a throne, I knew that my ordinary could never be the same again.
I will build a beautiful cathedral that might take hundreds of years, just like the artists did in the Middle Ages to build a house that would cherish the great for generations to come. I will build it with care and precision and dedication because I want to show off God’s beauty.
I will hike up the mountain, hauling each piece of marble. Even if I feel every step of the journey, I will not give up.
Even if it takes decades, I will keep showing up every day to build and to paint his picture. And I will tell the world what I am building — a home to show off the majesty, the wonder.
I will keep building to the heavens, hammering the slab of marble into smaller and smaller pieces, digging for the imperfect slivers, piecing together the mosaics with the perfect broken pieces that will fit together and shine for thousands of years.
The people will come and they will know that he is bigger than life, higher than the heavens. They will bow their heads and weep because he transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.
St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi lived by this saying, “Become what you contemplate.” In even the smallest way, this happened on my trip. Every morning, we gathered as a group of twenty to follow a liturgy, or a guide to daily prayer. This included daily repetition of the Apostle’s Creed, a different Psalm, and The Lord’s Prayer.
We also sang a song of praise every morning, and sometimes again in the evening. On my last day, we found a room in the monastery in Orvieto with beautiful acoustics. We had sang the same song for more than two weeks at that point, but this time it sounded different. This time we all slowed down the verses, an unspoken plea that the blended harmonies would go on, never ending, bouncing off the walls in every moment yet to come. I looked around and saw many with tears streaming down their cheeks as we sang:
All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of things shall be well
I came home to the greeting of loved ones’ surgeries, hospitalizations, and deaths. Sitting in the wooden pew at a funeral a few days after my plane dropped me back home, I listened to the final words of a suddenly widowed man who remembered a woman who opened their home for the same Christmas party every year for 48 years: “People in this area loved her a lot…but I loved her the most.”
And yet, I will keep walking, hanging the laundry and going to work and setting the table for every year we’re given to build, and I will keep singing in every ordinary and extraordinary step, “All shall be well… all shall be well…”
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”